I’m not a particularly big fan of soccer, but I love the FIFA World Cup. Every four years, countries clash on the football pitch in a proxy war for cultural supremacy, creating a spectacle that delivers controversy, thrills, and the illusion that the world can truly come together every once in a while, even if only to focus on a beautiful game. When would the nations of Denmark and Tunisia join together over anything, much less Mexico and Poland, Switzerland and Cameroon, Uruguay and Korea, Portugal and Ghana? That was only in the first round.
Imagine if Ukraine could play Russia on the pitch, or Israel kick-off against Iran? The matches themselves run back and forth on the spectrum of boredom and excitement. This year Canada made the finals for the first time since 1986, announcing itself as a true soccer nation (alongside other underrated teams like Australia and the USA). It was a close opener, losing to the world’s #2 ranked Belgium. Our second match was against Croatia, and I tuned in from 35,000feet on a Lufthansa flight that screened the game live. Technology, eh? When Alfonso Davies scored Canada’s first ever World Cup goal in the opening minutes, I screamed “YES!” scaring the crap out of my fellow Airbus 330 passengers, the vast majority of whom had little interest in this particular game. We were, after all, en-route to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
It’s not a country I ever thought I’d visit, but I received an invite to the prestigious WTTC Global Tourism Summit, and an opportunity to explore some of Riyadh and Jeddah in the process. Yes, I’m fully aware of the problematic international reputation of Saudi Arabia, just as I’m fully aware that what we hear in the media can differ starkly from reality on the ground. Among critical news coverage are whispers of a great cultural reformation, a dialling back of religious extremism, and a massive investment in mega-projects to attract international tourism. I’ve written more about that in an article I hope someone will publish, which gets into the contradictions and controversies. Here, I thought I’d focus on moments and vignettes without getting too much into the weeds. I expect some readers will take offence regardless.
As a Jewish journalist, I was a little nervous heading to the highly-controlled kingdom, of course, but I had been provided with a new online tourist visa, and an invitation. I was greeted with the first of many small cups of Saudi coffee, a blonde elixir spiced with cardamom, saffron, ginger, and others spices, and always served with sweet dates. Saudi Arabia is trying to get its coffee tradition recognized by UNESCO as a unique cultural heritage, a similar designation as baguettes to France or Balsamic vinegar to Italy. My first impression leaving the airport was similar to my first impression visiting Dubai. Endlessly straight, flat roads lined with neon malls, minarets, unusual skyscrapers, and heavy traffic. I see a large neon sign advertising the Human Rights Commission, as if proudly defying international criticism. There’s Starbucks, H&M, Dunkin’ Donuts, major hotel chains, gas stations (about 80c a litre, in case you’re wondering). We pass the world’s largest female-only university, villas and palaces, glitzy car dealerships. My hotel room at the Jareed Hotel was huge and modern, surrounded by upscale restaurants, and overlooking two giant screens showing the World Cup. A bottle of wine with fruit sat at the foot of the bed, only the wine bottle held Italian sparkling water. There would be no wine, beer or spirits this week, and it would take some getting used to. Although I’m told there is a black market, alcohol is illegal across the kingdom, and so it will be a rare, dry week of hot, exotic travel.
For all the construction and moonshot tourism developments (check out this wild vision for The Line), my week’s highlights are the old towns of Jeddah and Riyadh, which feel more authentic with their wooden windows, mud-houses, souks, galleries and mosques. I learn about Saudi clothing, their customs, coffee ceremony, their homes and lavish feasts. Gradually, my overall discomfort with the regime gives way to the truth of all travel, which rears up whether you’re visiting a highly-controlled regime or permissive democracy: cultures are different, and not every culture wishes to emulate our own. Where we see oppression, they see tradition; where we see a gin and tonic, they see decadence. Neither has the right to judge and convict, but we all have the right to engage, listen, and learn. In sha’Allah, we can all come together – men, women and children – over coffee and glazed dates, with mutual respect and understanding of our differences. In sha’Allah, may tourism continue to drive positive change on the planet we all call home.